MOVEMENT

BUILDING FLEXIBILITY AND STRENGTH IN MY UPPER BODY

Wild Thing
Wild Thing pose

One of my goals for 2021 is to seriously train for a half-marathon. While it is difficult to stay motivated when all races are canceled for the time being, I am mostly enjoying my training and pushing myself on longer and longer runs.  This means I am spending a lot of time on my feet and more time stretching and rolling out when I am not running.

One thing, however, that I have forgotten to account for, is the lack of cross training for my upper body. I recently completed a circuit style at-home workout and marveled at how sore I was in my upper body, particularly in my shoulders.  This was particularly frustrating for me, since I have always enjoyed working my upper body and have found myself to be naturally very flexible there.

I believe that the healthiest approach to training or working out is balance so I tasked myself with creating a routine to help build up strength in my shoulders and upper body while keeping my flexibility.  I selected five of my favorite poses and sequences to incorporate into my daily yoga to help.

  1. Puppy Pose

Puppy pose is an all-time favorite of mine for stretching out my back and releasing any tension in my shoulders. It feels great all around and I love to just hang out in at the end of my practice. Puppy pose can also be done against a wall to save adding pressure on your hips and knees. I like to keep some flexion through my feet to prevent my hips from falling out.

Puppy pose
Puppy pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in a table position, knees stacked under hips and hands stacked under shoulders. Walk the hands a few inches in front of the shoulders and exhale as you begin lower your chest towards the mat. Keep the hips up and back and arms stretched overhead. Forehead can rest on the mat or a blanket. Hold for 30 seconds or as long as you like.

  • Dolphin w/ L Pulse

Dolphin pose has historically been hard for me. I think the biggest adjustments I personally made to make the pose more comfortable were keeping my heels slightly elevated and shifting my gaze to my hands. By keeping my heels slightly elevated rather than pressing towards the mat, as they would in downward dog, my hips stay elevated and high. This puts more of my weight on my shoulders and forearms and becomes more of a strength pose rather than a deep hamstring stretch. Adjusting my gaze from looking forward to looking at the mat or my hands helps elongate my neck and prevent any crunching in my spine.

If I am really feeling dolphin pose or want to give myself a challenge, I like to incorporate L-pulses with my legs.  I start by lifting one leg towards the ceiling and the press through the ball of the opposite leg to push my hips slightly over my shoulders. I repeat 5 times and then switch legs. While pulsing, it’s important to reach through the leg in the air and keep the gaze on the floor to keep length in the spine.

Dolphin pose
Dolphin pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in downward facing dog, with hips pressing up and back and a long spine. Exhale, bend at the elbows, and lower on to the forearms so the elbows are stacked under the shoulders and forearms are parallel.  Engage your core and adjust your feet so the hips stay elevated and the spine stays long. Gaze can come to the mat or the hands. Hold for 30 seconds or as long as you like.

Dolphin pose L
Dolphin pose with an L pulse
  • Twisting dog

When I first started practicing yoga, I rarely incorporated twists because I didn’t see the benefit. I also found them difficult because I tend to hunch my spine and collapse my front while twisting.  I slowly learned how to expand the spine in a twist and reach through my crown and tailbone. However, collapsing my spine, particularly in seated twist, is still something I struggle with.

I like twists that allow me to fully stretch and expand in the twist, rather than curling into myself. I especially like this variation of downward dog because it works my balance, core strength and shoulder strength while also providing the benefits of a simple twist. If this variation does not work in your body, a good substitution is thread the needle which is done from a table position.

Getting into the pose

Begin in downward facing dog, with hips pressing up and back and a long spine. Begin to shift weight into your left hand and raise the right hand a few inches off the mat.  Exhale and glide the right hand underneath the body, resting it on the mat or left calf.  Gaze comes under the left shoulder. Hold for 2 breaths or as long as you like, then repeat on the other side

  • Modified Dancer

I see extended dancer pose on social media a lot. I was introduced to this variation of dancer during my training and actually prefer it because it feels really good on my shoulders and upper back.  I also like this modified version because it is easier for me to balance and doesn’t put a lot of strain on my hips like an extended dancer would.

Dancer Pose

Getting into the pose

Begin in a standing position, feet stacked under the hips, soft bend in the knees and arms resting at your sides. Find a steady gaze point for your eyes and begin to shift weight into your left leg.  Bend the right leg behind you, keeping your toes pointed, and lift your foot towards the pelvis. Reach behind and catch the foot with both hands, opening the shoulders and upper body. Keep the shoulders stacked over the hips and hold for 4 breaths or as long as you like. Release the right foot and repeat on the left.

  • Shoulder Flossing

The shoulder joint itself is a ball and socket joint meaning that it has high flexibility and movement..  I tend to think of shoulder movement as only up and down, as in lifting something.  In reality, the shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body and I like to incorporate movements to remind myself of that.  Shoulder flossing is one of those movements that reminds me just how mobile the shoulder joint truly is.

I only recently started incorporating shoulder flossing regularly into my routine and I am so happy I did. Not only is the movement great for opening my chest and stretching my shoulders, I’m also finding my handstands to be much more accessible because my shoulders are much more open. These are typically performed with a yoga strap and I suggest starting with a very wide grip and then slowly working your grip in as you adjust.  If you do not have a strap, I would recommend using a resistance band, a long scarf, or even a towel.

Getting into the pose

Begin in a seated position; I like to sit back on my heels in hero pose.  Hold the yoga strap taut in your hands with arms straight in front of you. Inhale and begin to lift the arms over head, keeping them straight, with a long spine. Exhale while still holding the strap and circle the arms behind keeping the spine long and arms straight. Continue this movement, forwards and backwards for 4 rounds or however many you like. A longer strap will provide more mobility and make this movement easier while a shorter strap and closer grip will be more difficult, depending on your flexibility.

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